The Buccaneers entered day three of the 2021 NFL Draft looking not only for some depth but also some special teams help. They certainly got it in the fourth round, trading their original fourth-round pick (No. 137) and their compensatory sixth-rounder (No. 217) to Seattle for pick No. 129. With its new fourth-round selection, Tampa Bay stayed on the offensive side of the ball to pick Jaelon Darden, a fast, shifty receiver and return man out of North Texas. Here, we have three things you need to know about the team’s 2021 fourth-rounder.
By being selected on Saturday, Darden broke a 17-year draft drought for North Texas
When he was selected in the fourth round on Saturday, Jaelon Darden made history. He became the first North Texas player to be drafted since 2004, when the Raiders selected linebacker Cody Spencer in the sixth round. That 17-year drought was the longest of any team in major college football, but now it’s over. And with the career that Darden had for the Mean Green, it sure isn’t a surprise that he was the one to snap the streak. He left Denton, Texas, as North Texas’ all-time leader in receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and receiving touchdowns (38).
The crazy part is, his path to starring for the Mean Green wasn’t exactly an expected one. Darden’s original commitment to UNLV fell through at the last minute, and it left him with an unclear future. It was then that North Texas receivers coach Tommy Mainord extended a scholarship to Darden. And it’s a good thing he did, because the speedy receiver blossomed into one of the program’s all-time greats. It was a gradual rise to the top for Tampa Bay’s newest receiver, as he caught 32 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2017 before putting up 575 yards and four touchdowns on 48 catches in 2018. It was in 2019 that he truly broke out.
As a junior, Darden caught 76 passes for 736 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning a nod to the All-Conference USA First Team. But unsurprisingly, he took off to another level in his senior season. In a shortened 2020 season, he hauled in 74 passes for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns, landing him in the nation’s top five across all of those categories. Not to mention, flashed on special teams as well. He has 4.4 speed and is incredibly elusive, which is why he is an obvious fit to be a return man in the NFL. He had kick and punt return experience in college, with an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown as a freshman highlighting his special teams value.
He draws inspiration, work ethic and personality from his late father
Growing up, Darden acquired an unwavering work ethic from his parents, Manya and Tamishe. The quick, undersized receiver was always taught to work hard at his craft and put in the effort to be the best he could possibly be. And he took that to another level in 2020 after tragically losing his father, Manya, to a sudden heart attack. At the end of 2020, Darden spoke with Shehan Jeyarajah of TexasFootball.com about his work ethic and playing for his late father. In Jeyarajah’s outstanding feature (seriously, you should read it), Darden was quoted as saying that his focus after his dad’s passing was like that of the late great Kobe Bryant:
“I really locked into football the month after my dad passed,” Darden said. “I just went into Kobe mode. It’s just a mode I’ve gone into that I can’t come out of.”
What he did in 2020 surely made his father proud, as he set the North Texas record for single-season receiving touchdowns (19) while posting five multi-touchdown games, including a 173-yard, four-touchdown game in the final game of his career against UTEP. His mother, Tamishe, had this to say about the way her son played after losing his father, who he has described as his best friend:
“It’s as if when he gets on the field and the ball touches his hands, he sees his dad at the end zone,” Tamishe Darden said. “When he makes it to the end zone, not only does he congratulate himself, he always throws his hands up to give reverence and to have the humility to know that it’s not his work.”
After being selected by the Bucs on Saturday, Darden spoke about having the feeling that his father was still right there with him for his big moment. He’s now made it to the NFL, where he’ll look to put his speed and impressive footwork on display for the defending Super Bowl champions. And all the while, he’ll surely be displaying some of the personality that he got from his dad, who was always encouraging others and making people laugh. Darden was like a big brother to his teammates at North Texas, and he certainly has a sense of humor about him. After all, he once had this to say about his elusiveness:
“Making someone miss is like waking up in the morning and brushing my teeth... I gotta do it every day.”
Darden was widely believed to be one of the biggest sleepers in this year’s draft
You can’t argue with Darden’s production at North Texas. You certainly can’t help but be impressed with what he put on tape. And although he is undersized and comes from a relatively unheralded North Texas football program, he was still tabbed by many as one of the biggest sleepers in this year’s class of receivers. No, he wasn’t up there in the first round with Heisman winner Devonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase or Jaylen Waddle, but the fact that he is already being talked about as a fourth-round steal shows how many view him.
Bucs pick one of the most underrated players in the NFL Draft— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) May 1, 2021
Jaelon Darden, North Texas
Per Pro Football Focus, Darden had a step or more of separation on 90% of his targets in 2020, which was the highest percentage in college football. He had more touchdown catches than No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts and trailed only Heisman winner Devonta Smith. Of his 19 touchdown catches, 16 came from the slot, which also led the nation. His Pro Football Focus grade of 89.8 was tied for the sixth-best grade of any receiver in the country last year as well. It’s not just PFF, either. It’s also Joel Klatt of CFB on Fox, Mark Schofield of USA Today and even Cincinnati Bengals No. 5 overall pick Ja’Marr Chase, who worked out with Darden in the offseason:
Seriously, if you just search “Jaelon Darden” on Twitter, you’ll see countless fans from just about every other team in the league talking about how they want/wanted the North Texas product. It’s not hard to get excited about what he brings to a Tampa Bay offense that is already loaded with talent, not to mention a special teams unit that could use a spark.
You can find new Buccaneers wide receiver Jaelon Darden on Twitter @JDFlash1x. Be sure to take some time to give him a follow, congratulate him and welcome him to Tampa Bay!